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How Line of Duty became our national TV obsession

As former Line of Duty star Craig Parkinson launches a new weekly podcast exploring the world of Jed Mercurio’s smash hit drama, he tells The Big Issue how we all became obsessed. Caution: contains spoilers for series 1-5
Craig Parkinson played DI Matthew 'Dot' Cottan in series 1-4 of Line of Duty

Since it began in 2012, Line of Duty has produced more water cooler moments than most other television series. Series six, which airs from Sunday March 21, will contain all the shocks and twists we can expect from Jed Mercurio’s smash hit drama, but many of us will no longer be communing at work, with friends and family, or in pubs to discuss the latest developments.

Fear not. One of the actors who made the show so special, Craig Parkinson – aka disgraced DI Matthew ‘Dot’ Cottan – will recreate the water cooler moments after each episode, courtesy of his new role as host of BBC Sounds podcast Obsessed with… Line of Duty.

We asked Parkinson, whose Two Shot Podcast has seen him interview the great and good of the acting profession, to give an insider view of the rise and rise of Line of Duty, and how it grew from what its creator calls a ‘BBC2 summer schedule filler’ to the biggest show on the small screen…

“Anybody that’s in the series is as obsessed with those interrogation scenes as everybody else”

If you’d said we will all be obsessed with these scenes that may last 35 minutes and all they’re doing is interviewing somebody – and at the start of it is a big long beep that seems to go on for 30 minutes – no one would have believed you. Anybody that’s in the series is as obsessed with those interrogation scenes as everybody else. And they don’t get any easier, I can tell you that.

In season three, I had two very long interview scenes in the feature length finale. As an actor, it’s all about preparation, full stop. It’s like a play. You have to know it backwards. Lennie James set the precedent – and he was so right in doing this. He said we should run it all as one scene and in one take. I was terrified at the time. If you’re running something as one take, it’s like a play and if you drop the ball or fuck up, you’ve got to go back to the beginning and that’s on you. You can’t blame anybody else. They’re as terrifying and thrilling as anything I’ve ever filmed.

Everybody’s grateful for Lennie James for setting that precedent because if they were broken up they would have lacked the intensity and energy that those interview scenes deliver. We started on BBC Two – I wonder whether BBC One would have allowed that, because on paper, we had never seen it before.

“One of the genius things is the casting”

Kate Rhodes James has been the casting director from day one. She’s the one that’s coming up with all these ideas. Right from the start, we all came from an independent film background – I’d done two films with Martin Compston, Vicky McClure was coming off the back of Shane Meadows’ This Is England, Lennie James and Gina McKee were highly respected actors but not from mainstream television. The most high profile person was Neil Morrissey – and who else would have thought to put Neil Morrissey in that part?

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Line of Duty original cast members Vicky McClure, Martin Compston and Adrian Dunbar

As actors, We’re constantly fighting against the system, going ‘don’t just put me in that box, I can do this too’. So one of the genius things is the casting. When I started acting, I only wanted to do comedy – until I got cast in Whitechapel and they went, ‘Oh, Parkinson does bad guys.’ Now I’ve got bad guys coming out of my ears. Playing the bad guy is so much fun.

Lindsay Denton became an iconic character – elevated by the casting of Keeley Hawes

I remember reading the character of Lindsay Denton for the first time and thinking, what an incredible character. Male or female, doesn’t matter. It’s an incredible character and it became an iconic character, elevated by the casting of Keeley Hawes. I’m hopefully going to have the casting director on the podcast. She’s quite reticent but I am trying to twist her arm because casting for that main protagonist must be getting harder.

I assume they could attract anyone – I couldn’t believe it when they cast Thandie Newton. Wow. I’m sure the world and his wife is queuing up to be a part of it. I read an interview with Jimmy Nesbitt not long ago and he was gutted that he’s never been asked to do it. Because Jimmy would be perfect for it but there are so many people that would be a perfect fit.

“We’re all guessing”

We only get the first three scripts in a series at first, so we’re all guessing. In season one, I shot those first three episodes and was forming a character – and then I got the next three scripts and had to form another character! In some respects, it’s another stroke of genius, because had I known at the beginning what I knew at the end, as an actor, I would have been playing two different things. It may have hindered it. Then, moving forward into Season Two and Season Three, I was just adding layer after layer after layer depending on which hat Dot was wearing, who he is speaking to, what information he wanted to give. This show completely changed my life.

“Expect the unexpected with Jed. Always.”

If you look at the season three finale in detail, the tone of the show changes. Expect the unexpected with Jed. Always. It turns from what we know and what we love and what we’re obsessed with, to an all-out action sequence.

Sunday mornings in Belfast city centre are very, very quiet. But even then, I didn’t feel particularly comfortable running around with a handgun when we filmed it. And Vicky was running around with a fucking machine gun hanging off the side of a lorry. Me and Vicky were filming that all day. It was super intense.

I very rarely watch the work that I do for a number of reasons. But I remember when I read that, I could not believe what we were being asked to do and what was going to happen. And then when I saw that sequence, my heart was racing just as it was on that Sunday morning when I was legging it around.

It was really hot as well. Me and Vicky were having a face off and I think we were both pointing our guns at each other and she fainted on the ground. We had to call it a day because she was running around with all that heavy gear on and a big machine gun, sun beating down – we’re used to sitting around a table trying to interrogate people not running around like we’re in Bad Boys with Will Smith.

It’s an iconic moment. I know it’s one of Martin Compston’s favourite moments. As it is mine. And a lot of people’s. People still go back to season three because it delivers as many questions as it does answers, but it’s got a great arc the whole season.

“He was just a little scrote on a BMX…”

Look at the ending of season five, you’ve got young Ryan graduating to become a police officer. And he is now the new caddy. It is the same actor and sae character that was in season one, when we were filming in Birmingham, when he was just a little scrote on a BMX… It’s genius.

I want to connect with the fans as much as possible with the podcast. Because they come up with some wild theories. I get asked on a daily basis whether Dot’s really dead – they always say, well, we never saw his grave, we were never at his funeral. Nope. He’s dead. But a great thing about Jed’s writing is that someone who you met briefly in season two may come back in season four. And I know some characters we love or loathe are going to come back in season six.

“Nobody in the world of Line of Duty is safe”

We are all genuinely great friends. We keep in touch as much as we can – I remember when Lennie [James] was off filming Fear The Walking Dead in Atlanta, we sent him a photo from the set starting season two. And he was bereft because he wasn’t a part of it anymore.

It is such a close knit family. I understood, because we missed him as well. But it really hit home when I got sent photos or video messages from the guys when they were starting season four. It was made worse for me because I still had to fly over to film for like 20 minutes for a flashback scene. So I was dipping my toe in it.

Daniel Mays in Line of Duty
Daniel Mays was nominated for a Bafta for his role in Line of Duty

I couldn’t watch season four for ages. It was too close to home for me. Because that a huge part of my career and my social life and some of my best friends ever that are going off to play without me. When you’ve been part of something as long as I was and were there from the birth of it and have been a part of it growing, to then not be a part of it anymore was awful. But it just goes to show that nobody in the world of Line of Duty is safe.

“Nobody puts Adrian Dunbar in the corner!”

When did I realise that Ted Hastings was going to be a cult of his own? When they cast Adrian Dunbar. He’s just an absolute living legend full stop. If you go back to season one, he’s actually not the Ted we know and love. He’s a slightly minor character. And that’s testament to Adrian as an actor. Because why would you put him on the sidelines? He needs to be front and centre – nobody puts Dunbar in the corner…

Line of Duty returns to BBC1 on Sunday nights at 9pm

New episodes of Obsessed with… Line of Duty are available on BBC Sounds every Sunday night